From the Ground Up: Sarah Woodmartin

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Hannah Woods speaks to Sarah Woodmartin, a teagasc PhD candidate researching the factors affecting dry matter intake, digestibility and meat quality in sheep grazing alternative forages

Originally from a mixed farming enterprise in Ballydoogan, Co. Sligo, Sarah Woodmartins focus into the sustainability of Irish agriculture has led her to pursue a PhD in Teagasc Athenry. After growing up working on their sustainable 300 head commercial ewe flock alongside suckler cattle and 600 free range hens at home in Woodville farm, Sarah believes that “sustainability and efficiency of farming methods are key focuses as we continue to tackle the ever growing concern of climate change”. After graduating from Ag Science in the Summer of 2020, Sarah took up her PhD based in Athenry that Autumn researching the effect of sward type on dry matter intake, digestibility, meat quality and methane output in sheep systems, where research such as this is invaluable to the future of our sheep farming systems. 

The basis of Sarah’s research investigates a grassland sward of “perennial ryegrass in conjunction with white clover, red clover, chicory and plantain. These swards are being investigated in grazing trials as well as in a digestibility trial where animals are housed in 5x5 metabolism crates and offered zero grazed forage. The digestibility study allows us to have complete control of the animal’s intake and environment, where feed is offered at +10% of the previous day's intake to allow ad lib feeding. Diets are formulated at 75% perennial ryegrass and 25% of the respective forage. Following this the samples and data are collected such as intake and digestibility, faeces, urine, blood, rumen, methane, muscle and back fat scanning”.

“The key aim of my work is to gain knowledge into the use of these alternative forages as an acceptable animal feedstuff and evaluate whether this production system can improve overall animal performance and efficiency at farm level”. At said farm level, we have seen that the inclusion of alternative forages to the diet of cattle within beef systems has shown to reduce the number of days to slaughter and increase their average daily gain, we can see this reigning true now too within the sheep sector.

research into improving the way we feed our livestock such as Sarah’s set the basis for the future of Irish farming.

From implementing sustainable practices on her home farm Sarah believes that “by breeding from high genetic merit rams and further keeping replacements from them we are improving the long-term sustainability of our home flock. Animal breeding will have a huge part to play in a cleaner future for Irish agriculture. Increasing the genetic status of the national flock has the potential to reduce GHG emissions per kilo of carcass produced”.

Moving forward research as such will be invaluable to both the farmer and within the industry who look to improve climate mitigation strategies be they at farm level or to go as far as EU policy. All in all, research into improving the way we feed our livestock such as Sarah’s set the basis for the future of Irish farming. 

the effect of sward type on dry matter intake, digestibility, meat quality and methane output in sheep systems, where research such as this is invaluable to the future of our sheep farming systems.

“As sheep have a natural ability to live off the land. Ireland has a huge competitive advantage with our ability to grow grass in abundance. Through good grassland management practices we can reduce the need for consumption of a high intake of concentrate feeding and in turn lower the carbon footprint”. This could lead to a reduction in the importing of feedstuffs such as soya where Ireland is currently only 36% self-sufficient in animal concentrate feeds. This ultimately reduces the sustainability of the diet unless it is solely grass based or looking further afield we need to take more advantage of the crops grown in Ireland to date such as barley and oats and utilise them into our feed rations. 

“Increasing the grass portion in the diet will improve feed digestibility, the greater the ability to digest a feedstuff the lower the emissions as animal productivity is increased and the proportion of dietary energy lost as methane is reduced”.

Sarah Woodmartin on her home farm in Ballydoogan with working collie Liz
Sarah on her home farm in Ballydoogan with working collie Liz.

As young farmers it is our unanimous goal to try and work towards a cleaner and more sustainably efficient agri-food sector, one that will be able to feed our world's growing population. “Our generation needs to bridge the knowledge gaps in society’s perception of farming and food production. We have a vital role to play in order to educate consumers and encourage people to buy sustainable local produce. I hope to encourage farmers, consumers and students that Irish agriculture has a positive future that can be made more efficient and lower its carbon footprint by adopting advice and methodologies coming through invaluable research being carried out across the country through all industries be it sheep, beef, dairy, poultry or pigs”.